Vižula Archeological Park
Vižula Archeological Park

Roman holiday in Istria

The Vižula Archeological Park in Medulin sheds new light on ancient lifestyles

Written by
Jonathan Bousfield

The villa comes with a colonnaded shore-line portico, mosaic floors, under-floor heating, an indoor bath complex and 24-hour room service. The views of the Gulf of Medulin are stunning. It’s the perfect place for toga parties.

Sadly, this shoreline property can’t be booked over the internet. A Roman-era villa complex, stretching around the shores of the Vižula peninsula just outside Medulin, it hasn’t been lived in for quite a while. Excavated over three decades by a team of local archeologists, it now forms the heart of the Vižula Archeological Park, providing a fascinating look back at the history of Adriatic leisure.     

Built and rebuilt at several stages between the first and sixth centuries, the Vižula complex was clearly one of the elite resorts of its day. It was by no means the only such place in Istria. There were similar villas on the nearby Pomer peninsula, and on the Brijuni islands just north of Pula. This villa culture clearly served the local wealthy as well as dignitaries from further afield, suggesting that the luxury seaside holiday is not a modern invention.  

Vizula Archaeological Park
Dusko Marusic/PIXSELL

The park is a fantastic addition to the Istrian culture trail, with a 2.3km path leading round a lush green peninsula. Alternative-reality goggles, available from the kiosk at the park entrance, allow visitors a glimpse of what the settlement would have looked like in its heyday. Rest points, information boards and other facilities (all designed by Pula architects Alter Lego) artfully combine rust-coloured surfaces with stark wooden posts, and are very much a contemporary-design attraction in their own right.  

The main residential complexes are on the western and southern tips of the peninsula, their rooms occupying natural terraces overlooking the shore. A large quayside area on the eastern side of the peninsula kept the complex supplied with victuals and also contained accommodation and entertainment facilities for merchants, sailors and slaves. An ‘ancient garden’, holding the herbs and plants that would have served the complex’s kitchens, sends up an effervescent waft of perfume every time the breeze picks up.  

There is a Roman-era quarry at the tip of the peninsula, although it is not as spectacular as that at Vinkuran 8km to the north-east, whose sheer cliffs now form the backdrop to the Cave Romane music festival.  This summer, the Rocks & Stars Festival features an incredible line-up of performances until July 29.

Vižula Archeological Park
Dusko Marusic/PIXSELL

Providing the Vižula site with additional allure is one of those probably-true stories of spurned love and blind revenge that have kept dramatists and storytellers well supplied with material throughout the ages. It concerns Flavius Julius Crispus aka Crispo, (c295-316), the eldest son of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Despite being the illegitimate issue of a concubine, Crispus was widely considered the emperor’s favoured heir, until Constantine’s wife Fausta made advances to him and was angered by his refusal. Fausta accused Crispus of attempted rape, and it was in the Istrian city of Pula that Crispus was tried on his father’s orders and sentenced to death. It has always been assumed that Crispus was held under house arrest on the Vižula peninsula before being put to death.

Constantine subsequently realised that the whole thing had been a mistake, and had Fausta drowned. References to Crispus and his family were removed from imperial records for all time, however, suggesting that the emperor never really forgave his favourite son entirely.

The story provides the background to one of the fabulous interactive performances devised by storytelling outfit Istra Inspirit, whose dramatised Crispo pageant is held in the park over the summer.

Vižula Archeological Park. Free admission year-round. Info point Apr–Sept 8am-8pm Mon-Fri; 8am-1pm & 5-8pm Sun; closed Sat.

This article is sponsored by the Istrian Tourism Board.

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